Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Green Watch: Don't let the financial crisis cause environmental catastrophe

Green Watch: Don't let the financial crisis cause environmental catastrophe

Source: The Jakarta Post – October 28, 2008 By Jonathon Wootliff

The media bombardment on the global economic crisis has left us in no doubt that the impacts will be deep and far reaching. Newspapers, radio and television are hammering home the dismal details of how the situation is going to affect jobs, pensions, savings and the like. But there's all too little mention of what this might mean for the environment.

My fear is that we are going to allow a financial crisis to turn into a ecological catastrophe. With an election looming, I am concerned that the Indonesian government will be tempted to offer short-term fixes at the long-term expense of the country's fragile ecosystems.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is going to face his biggest test. He's long espoused the importance of environmental protection and famously placed Indonesia on the map of eco-responsible states during his passionate interventions at last December's climate change convention in Bali.

Will he now cut corners on environmental protection as the economic slump sets in? Or will he stand by his principles and continue to implement the much-needed protective measures?

This great nation supports tremendous biodiversity of animal and plant life in its pristine rain forests and its rich coastal and marine areas. Up to 3,305 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles, and at least 29,375 species of vascular plants are endemic to the nation's more than 17,000 islands.

Indonesia's stunning natural environment and rich resources however, are facing sustained challenges both from natural phenomena and human activity.

Mounting population pressure together with inadequate environmental management is a challenge for Indonesia that hurts the poor and the economy. Total economic losses attributable to limited access to safe water and sanitation are conservatively estimated at two percent of GDP annually, while the annual costs of air pollution to the Indonesia economy have been calculated at around US$400 million per year.

These costs are disproportionately borne by the poor because they are the ones more likely to be exposed to pollution and less likely to be able to afford mitigation measures.

Natural resource challenges have persisted and become more complicated after decentralization. The forestry sector has long played a pivotal role in supporting economic development, the livelihoods of rural people and in providing environmental services. However, these resources have not been managed in a sustainable or equitable manner.

Turning this situation around requires courage and vision -- ideally led by the government -- of what a viable and environmentally sound forestry sector might look like. The country's administrative and regulatory framework cannot yet meet the demands of sustainable development in spite of a long history of support for policy and capacity development both from within the government and with international donor support.

Indonesia's ministries concerned with environment and natural resources management have benefited from good national level leadership, and also from an active network of civil society organizations throughout the country that are focused on environmental issues, with significant advocacy experience.

But improving Indonesia's approach to environment and natural resources management is extremely challenging. Two reasons account for much of the poor performance. First, despite the substantial investment in environment and natural resources policy and staff development, actual implementation of rules and procedures has been poor and slow due to weak commitment by sector agencies, low awareness in local departments and capacity challenges at all levels.

And awareness about the expected negative environmental impacts of sustained economic growth and the mechanisms for stakeholders to hold government agencies accountable for their performance are weak.
Second, there is little integration of environmental considerations at the planning and programmatic levels, especially in the public investment planning process and in regional plans for land and resource use. In the main, Indonesia's environment has benefited from this government's more committed approach. But there is still a very long way to go.

Now is not the time to reduce the efforts to protect this country's vital ecosystems. For the sake of nature and the people of this country, we must appeal to the better judgment of the government not to loosen its grip on the vital environmental challenges. Prudent economic management is surely vital right now. But we cannot allow the problems that have stemmed half a world away on Wall Street to take its toll on Indonesia's precious environment.

Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@wootliff.com